By Emmanuel Uffot
Former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Akwa Ibom State, Barrister Uwemedimo Nwoko, (SAN) has advocated for the building of more prisons now known as Correctional Centres across the country to ease the age- long congestion inherent in the facilities.
Nwoko canvassed this view recently at Uyo High Court where the trial of one Uduak Frank who allegedly killed Iniobong Umoren, a graduate of University of Uyo is going on. Nwoko who is the lead counsel to the family of late Iniobong said there was need for the decentralisation of Correctional Centres by removing it from the Exclusive list to Concurrent list to enable state governments build their custodial centres given the fact that all the existing ones in the country were built by the Federal Government as such they fall under Exclusive list
For him, if the clarion call for the decongestion of the Correctional Centres is to become a reality, states should be given the latitude to build theirs to curb the trend whereby accused persons due to limited facilities are brought from states where they are standing trial and remanded in other states.
The legal luminary, who holds the record as the longest serving Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in the state since the dawn of the current democratic dispensation in 1999, noted that when he was in office, he initiated a move towards decongesting the Correctional Centres in Akwa Ibom State by instituting a Committee saddled with that responsibility but lamented that his efforts turned out to be liken to scooping water from a leaking boat which is an effort in futility because as you are scooping the water out more water enters the boat thus making the effort counter-productive.
The former Attorney General raised concern about the current situation whereby 20 inmates are freed through administrative pardon, only for another 40 to be remanded to fill whatever gap existed. He stressed that this was what hindered his move to decongest the prisons. He drew example from Uyo Correctional Centre that was meant for 600 inmates but currently habours over 3000 most of whom are awaiting trial.
Also sharing the concern of Nwoko, an Uyo based lawyer Otoabasi Edet posits that beyond inadequate Correctional Centres to habour convicted and remand accused persons, inadequate courts to try cases is another factor that fueled congestion at prisons. According to him, it is the duty of the state governments to build courts where judges would be assigned, and doing that will facilitate speedy dispensation of cases to forestall the current situation whereby a judge handled up to 30 cases at a time with proceedings taken with long hand. This he admits and aligned with the opinion of Barrister Nwoko that something should be done to stem the tide of congestion in Correctional Centres.
However, a senior personnel of the Nigerian Correctional Centre Uyo, Akwa Ibom state who pleaded for anonymity agrees with the opinion of the former Attorney General, Barrister Nwoko on the need for more Correctional Centres to decongest the facilities, but maintained that state governors are not favourably disposed to taking such responsibility of building correctional centres. He disclosed that 90 percent of inmates in the four Correctional Centres in Akwa Ibom State being Uyo, Eket, Ikot Ekpene and Ikot Abasi were either convicted or remanded through state criminal laws not federal, but frowned at situations state government decline to offer assistance to the service even for the upkeep of inmates, since in their argument it is a federal facility hence all liabilities should be borne by the federal government.
The service personnel also directed blame on the door step of the federal government, for not considering the building of more prisons across the country a priority. He stressed that doing so would not only ease prison congestion the Senior Advocate of Nigeria is advocating, but would offer employment to more Nigerians into the service.
It is instructive to note that most of the prisons across the country were built in the 60s and 70s, while Akwa Ibom state with 31 local Government Areas has only four prisons located in four local governments areas, Lagos state, former capital of Nigeria with the highest population in Nigeria has only Kirikiri and Ikoyi prisons.
Indeed, the issue of prison congestion in Nigeria has been a source of concern from time immemorial. Analysts and stakeholders have overtime blamed it on factors like inadequate prisons as noted by Barrister Nwoko, inadequate courts, incessant plea for adjournment by lawyers and ineffective prosecution mechanism by prosecuting police officers among others.
But Barrister Samuel Ebitu, another Uyo based lawyer does not agree with the notion that lawyers’ plea for adjournment should be blamed for prison congestion. He argued that since court trial is neither a child’s play nor something that should be handled haphazardly with a fire brigade approach, it beholds on litigating and defense counsels to take their time to exhaust all that relates to the matter so that justice will not only be done but seen to have been done. According to Ebitu, the need for painstaking approach in handling matters is what most times lead to counsels pleading for adjournment to enable them cross the T’s and dot the I’s of their cases to the satisfaction of their clients.
It is also noteworthy that apart from the worrisome situation that 70 percent of inmates are awaiting trial in correctional centres, a substantial number are condemned persons on death row due to the unwillingness of state governors to sign execution warrant. This factor has also contributed to congestion as most of the condemned persons stay as much as 10 years awaiting execution.
In 2013, the then Governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomhole, signed the death warrants of some condemned prisoners contrary to the position of most of his colleagues. In December 2016, HIS successor Governor Godwin Obaseki signed death warrants on three condemned prisoners.
However, former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2013 urged state governors to sign death warrants, even as his then Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke was against the death penalty.
As at the time the former President Jonathan made the remarks in 2013, 970 prisoners were on death row across various prisons in Nigeria. The number consisted of 951 males and 19 females. Rivers State had 157 of those number followed by Delta with 149. Ogun State has 132, Plateau State, 126; Lagos 83; Kaduna 79; Enugu 75; Kano 51; Katsina 43; Edo 35; Cross River 17; Jigawa 18 and Kebbi 13. Others are Kwara 12; Federal Capital Territory 10; Niger 10; Ondo seven; Benue six; Sokoto six; Osun five and Taraba four.
But the number swelled to 1640 condemned persons In Nigeria in 2014 with the country leading countries that sanction death penalties like Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Iran, USA, Vietnam, India and Sri Lanka. An instance is the case of Reverend King who was condemned to death by a Lagos high court a decade ago but is still in custody awaiting execution.
All death sentences must be endorsed by state governors where judgments are passed before they are implemented, but there are concerns that governors use their Prerogative of Mercy and other excuses to commute those sentences. There are other reasons why governors are not signing death warrants, including concern from international human rights watchdogs and other local
Many stakeholders want judicial officers in states to toe the part of Nwoko by initiating moves to decongest prisons like he did when he was Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice in Akwa Ibom state if the strive to ease congestion of prisons in Nigeria will not remain a mirage.
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